Say Cheese!

Jessica Harlan by Jessica Harlan | January 4th, 2010 | No Comments
topic: Healthy Eating

I often wonder if my husband is preparing himself to live off the grid. At one time or another, Chip has taught himself to make beer, root beer, sausage, kombucha (a vile, in my opinion, fermented tea that’s supposed to have all sorts of health benefits), pasta and ice cream. Usually his experiments result in a messy kitchen and an end result that ranges from passably edible to truly delicious. But, his latest homemade craze is something I can really get behind: cheese.

I think it was his friend Henry who turned him on to the idea. Henry, who lives in Maine and once bought half a hog from a local farmer, mentioned breezily in an email one day that he had to go wax his Colby cheese. Like me, I don’t think Chip realized that cheesemaking was something you could do in your own kitchen. To me, cheesemaking conjures up images of a pastoral dairy farm with a kitchen full of gleaming white tile and stainless steel counters. But, it turns out, all you need is a handful of special ingredients like rennet and citric acid, all of which you can get in a kit from New England Cheesemaking Supply Company.

We sent away for the mozzarella making kit and, when it arrived, set aside a Sunday afternoon to try it out. We’d bought milk from a local dairy at Whole Foods, since the quality of the milk is the single most important factor in ensuring your cheese’s success, according to the handbook that came with our kit.

Making the mozzarella was shockingly simple. It basically involved heating the milk with a solution of dissolved citric acid, then adding the rennet, and letting the mixture sit for a few minutes. The rennet caused the milk solids to coagulate into a custardlike mass, which we then broke up with a knife and slowly stirred as the curds separated from the watery whey. Next was the fun part: the curds got heated in the microwave a few times, and, in between, we folded and pulled the mass like it was taffy or bread dough. When it smooth and springy, we formed the cheese into balls and dropped them into icy water to cool them quickly. That was it. It all took about half an hour.

Later we tried out our handiwork on pizza, making the dough from a recipe that used the leftover whey for the liquid in the pizza dough. I couldn’t taste a difference in the dough, but the cheese topping our pizza was another story. Creamy and delicate, with a slightly sweet flavor that reminded me of something I couldn’t put my finger on, the cheese was really incredible. And not just because we made it from scratch.

Next up, we’ll be trying cheddar, marscapone and maybe some sort of goat cheese, especially if we can find some really fresh local milk. While I’ll probably never become a cheesemaker of the caliber of artisanal heroes like Cowgirl Creamery or The Mozzarella Company, knowing how to make cheese gives me new appreciation of where my food is coming from and what goes into its creation. As for Chip, it’s just one more helpful talent he’ll be able to use if we do indeed go off the grid.

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